10.3.1 Landscape and Settlement

As in other periods, there are limited landscape studies for the period in comparison with those that have been undertaken in other areas like the northern Ochils (Given et al 2019). This is despite a good body of surviving remains and often good documentary evidence (Dalglish 2002; Bezant and Grant 2016). At the broadest scale there are the excellent overview surveys by the RCAHMS of the Cairngorms, Wester Ross and parts of Skye and Lochalsh, Cape Wrath, northwest Sutherland, Canna and Eigg (RCAHMS 1997; 1999a; 2001; 2003a; 2003b; 2009). John Hunter’s (2016) overview of the Small Isles (Canna, Eigg, Muck and Rùm) is also very strong on post-medieval settlement remains. The National Trust for Scotland has undertaken surveys on some of their properties, including Glencoe, Torridon, Balmacara, Canna and Inverewe, though most currently are unpublished (Case Study Archaeological Work by the NTS).

The North of Scotland Archaeological Society (NoSAS) has also undertaken large-scale survey, notably at Loch Hourn (Wombell 2003; Case Study Loch Hourn Survey), Lochaber, Glen Feshie, Badenoch and Strathspey (Marshall 2013a; Case Study Glen Feshie Survey) and Strathconon, Ross-shire (Marshall 2011b). Historic Assynt has been investigating multi-period settlement in northwest Sutherland for years with some limited excavation (Cavers and Hudson 2011). The ACFA surveys of Raasay, Skye (Gazin-Schwartz 2018) provide an example of a detailed survey at an intermediate level, and it also is an indication of the resource required to carry out this type of survey. A detailed survey and excavation of a relatively small landscape area is exemplified by the Lairg Project (McCullagh and Tipping 1998). Numerous other surveys have also been undertaken, including by the Scotlands Rural Past project on Moidart, Gairloch, Heights of Kinlochewe and near Strathpeffer (RCAHMS 2011).

The nature of rural settlement in different areas of the Highlands and the remains visible today relate in many cases to the nature and history of agriculture in the region. In pre-improvement times, in general, the runrig system held sway; this is where the arable land was shared out among multiple tenants (see Chapter 9.3). In some areas, the arable land was organised into infield and outfield which might have been separated by dykes. The whole of the township arable land and remainder of the in-bye land was usually enclosed by a head-dyke. Tenants in more upland areas shared in common grazing which might be extensive. Shieling areas – a form of transhumance – were set aside for summer grazing.

Crofts or individual holdings had been in existence for centuries and might, for instance, have been held by specialised tradesmen such as millers. Such crofts were not necessarily enclosed but should be distinguished from the crofts which emerged during the 18th and 19th centuries as a result of the colonisation of waste land or through the process of clearance and resettlement.

Houses were generally clustered together in townships or ‘fermtouns’, though there have been suggestions that settlement in earlier pre-clearance times may have been more dispersed (Dodgshon 1993; Dalglish 2002). In most areas archaeologist are also missing evidence for the medieval period (see Chapter 9.3); this means that issues of continuity or change cannot be assessed. Lelong (2003a) offered some suggestions on finding the medieval and earlier post-medieval settlements in current townships, but this challenge has not been taken up. Archaeologists should also be cautious of seeing one pattern over the whole of the Highlands. Moreover, it should also be borne in mind that settlements did not always comprise inhabitants of equal social status. Particular attention needs to be paid to the relationship between the larger farmers, the tacksmen (a person who holds a lease and sublets land to others) and their subtenants on the ground (see Taylor 2016b).

Coloured aerial photograph of cropmarks in an open landscape. The land in brown-yellow, with streams, rivers and faint roads cutting across the land in waving lines. The cropmarks are in the centre of the photograph. There are eight separate structures with rectangular walls, shown by their wall outlines, which are long rectangles, some with a partition towards one end of the building. A large rectangle is seen in the centre of the smaller structures, resembling a farm or field enclosure. The structures are also, notably, very close to the largest body of water seen in the frame.
Aerial view of the deserted township at Easter Raitts, Kingussie, Badenoch and Strathspey. ©HES (James S Bone Collection)

Landscape re-organisation could be said to have begun with the development of policies, landscape gardens and designed landscapes surrounding the castles and mansions of landowners. Some had antecedents in the 16th century, others incorporated 17th century changes and most were development further still in the era of improvement.

Although often dated to the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the improvement movement was certainly evident in the Highlands during the first half of the 18th century and likely started earlier and continued into the 19th century. At the same time, it may be said to have continued into the high farming era of the mid-19th century.

Image of a portion of an old fashioned map, with yellow-brown paper and hand tipped drawings and text. The main feature of the map is a river, drawn in a thick blue ribbon curving across the image. The other features, drawn in black ink, highlight the terrain of the landscape. They include a castle, farm and moorland.
Extract from the 1757 map by Peter May ‘A Plan of that Part of the Annexed Estate of Lovat lying in the Parish of Kilmorack and County of Inverness‘ showing areas for improvement and the formal garden layout of Castle Dounie. ©NLS

Landlords tended to be at the forefront of the earliest improvements that often commenced with the mains farm, which was expanded, usually by incorporating existing townships or farms, prior to being ditched, enclosed, and cleared of stones. The development of the mains was often associated with both the development of the policies as a whole and the establishment of plantations. Plans could take decades to come to fruition, especially for the financially challenged.

Many Highland landlords, including Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster, and the Highland Society were at the forefront of improving (Mitchison 1962; Sprott 1995). Improvement was in many ways a form of conspicuous investment. For landlords it was fashionable and helped to bolster social or political standing even though it did not necessarily bring a significant financial return.

Some landlords engaged in wholesale reorganisation and took on the burden of creating improved farms. On other estates the responsibility lay with the tenants. Sometimes, the larger farmers took the initiative themselves: some tacksmen farmers, who often took the better land and left the worst for their subtenants, began to improve rather in the same way that landlords improved their mains or home farms (see Taylor 2016b).

Even small tenants were involved in ‘improvement’ through the adoption of the potato, lazy bed cultivation and more labour-intensive methods. Some areas saw considerable colonisation by ‘mealers’ or ‘crofters’ from the second half of the 18th century (Bangor-Jones 2014b; Mowat 1981). As settlements grew, some shieling areas in the more upland regions were brought into cultivation and in time some became permanently settled.

Colonisation by crofters and mealers/mailers along with upland areas coming into cultivation was driven by a number of factors but one of them was population increase which threatened the relationship between the existing population and the way they worked the land. One of the reasons for improvement was to find a better way of dealing with this land pressure. This is a separate issue to tenants being cleared or relocated, though the two overlap.

Farm consolidation and amalgamation took place over an extended period. The abolition of runrig was a long, drawn out process that took place from the mid-18th to the mid-19th century. It was achieved in part by the re-organisation of smaller farms into large arable farms, in part by the clearance of upland townships and in part by the creation of crofts. Infield/outfield systems tended to disappear with agricultural improvement where they were replaced with more regular crop rotations. The extension of the arable land into areas with wetter soil conditions was given a boost by the availability of improved drainage techniques in the second quarter of the 19th century. Water management through the diversion of water courses and lowering of lochs (not always successfully) could alter the landscape in more fundamental ways (Symon 1959; Gibson 2007).

Aerial photograph of a coastal landscape, with both ancient and modern structures visible. There is a large body of water in the top third of the image, and at the bottom right corner, with the two connected via a narrow river cutting through the land to the top right. A sandy beach lines the coast to the north, separating the green grass and the water. Buildings are scattered across the landscape, with irregular stone enclosures defining farmland. The land to the top right, separated by the river, has one stone enclosure, but no modern buildings.
Aerial view of the crofting township, dykes, and remains of lazy-bed cultivation at Reiff, Ross and Cromarty. ©HES

In the arable lowlands change sometimes took place over a protracted timescale but in some places change occurred in a very short space of time. The same could be said of the introduction of commercial sheep farming. In both instances there was disruption to existing tenancies, often taking the form of extensive clearance. This process lasted from about the mid-18th to about the mid-19th centuries century in the lowland areas of the Highlands.

Some landlords saw the advantage in retaining their cleared population to engage in the fishing industry or in kelp manufacture. Those cleared were resettled on the coast, sometimes, but not always on newly laid-out crofts or individual holdings. In some areas moorland settlements were established. Whether crofts or runrig holdings, the possessions were usually designed to be too small to provide year round support. In due course, the collapse of kelp manufacture and the advent of the potato disease encouraged landlords to reorganise the remaining runrig townships into crofts as an encouragement to improvement (eg near Gairloch: Shaw 1988; Caird 1994). Crofting townships established at a relatively late point in time – the 1840s and 1850s – may incorporate elements of the runrig system in a way in which townships established earlier – the 1810s and 1820s – did not (Bangor-Jones 2000a).

Some crofts were later consolidated into farms. However, this was essentially put a stop to by the 1886 Crofting Act and subsequent legislation which brought security of tenure. The pattern of crofts in the Highlands at the time of the Crofting Act was modified by land settlement schemes, for example in Sutherland (Bangor-Jones 2020). All of these activities have left remains, with the upland cleared townships being the most visible.

Despite the large number of surviving remains in the Highlands, there has been relatively little investigation (Dalglish 2002; Bezant and Grant 2016). Only two townships have been examined in any depth. Fairhurst’s excavation in the 1960s of the cleared or pre-improvement settlement of Rosal in Strathnaver drew attention to the richness of such remains in the Highlands. He also considered the common grazings and outlying enclosures described in documentary sources (MHG11549; Fairhurst 1968). The other partially excavated Highland township is Easter Raitts, Badenoch (MHG4411; Lelong and Wood 2000; Case Study Easter Raitts Township), where the work informed the layout and construction of the Baile Gean township at the Highland Folk Museum, Newtonmore; these excavations, however, have not been fully published. There are a large number of possible candidates for similar investigation on this scale; these would ideally be carried out on the west coast. Some sites such as Slaggan, Wester Ross (MHG21342) retain upstanding remains.

Photograph of an excavation under way. Seven people are kneeling or crouched around large stone boulders protruding from the green grass, while one person overlooks them. These stones represent a longhouse, and there are small pits dug around and within the structure. In the background, a similar structure can be seen, with one kneeling excavator and one person standing. The excavation is occurring on relatively flat, green field land, and large hills can be seen in the far distance.
The archaeological excavation at Easter Raitts investigating two longhouses as part of the Aberdeen University fieldschool in 1995. ©The Highland Council
Photograph taken across a metal and wood field fence of a derelict building within a hilly, green landscape. The ocean can be seen behind the structure. The building itself survives only as its two upstanding gable ends, both with chimneys. The connecting walls appear to have collapsed, surviving only as short stone foundations. The building is surrounded by an enclosure of large drystone boulders, within the farm fencing.
Upstanding remains at Slaggan township, Ross and Cromarty. ©HES

Overall there have been significant advances in post-medieval landscape studies. Many surveys have been undertaken that build on the 1990s afforestation surveys of the RCAHMS, including work by Scotland’s Rural Past, NoSAS, ACFA, NTS, commercial units and individual groups, with, for the most part, results published via the HER or Canmore. There is a slowly accumulating number of excavations on the topic, though on a limited scale, though none with the same township focus as at Rosal and Easter Raitts. The constraints of funding have meant that the excavations have usually focussed on an individual structure within a settlement, with perhaps some attention paid to one or two other structures. The other caveat is that most of the sites surveyed or excavated date from the immediate pre-clearance or pre-Improvement period. Rural settlement sites of the 16th and 17th centuries have proven elusive.

The Highlands can at one level be regarded as a zone of survival: this reflects the history of settlement and land use, with clearance followed by sheep farming and the use of land as deer forest. However, when examined at the local level this view must be modified.  Firstly, the eastern lowlands of the Highlands – dominated by arable cultivation – are no different to other areas in Scotland where the pre-improvement settlements have, with few exceptions, been almost wholly erased. Secondly, many settlements in the Highlands proper have been ‘contaminated’ by post-clearance land-use, particularly shepherd’s houses, sheep enclosures and fanks. Settlements such as Learable in the strath of Kildonan (MHG11373; RCAHMS 1993a) which shows a split settlement with two distinct clusters, rigs and small enclosures, are not as common as is often thought (even Learable has a post-improvement shepherd’s house).

An oblique aerial photograph of a green landscape, with field systems, forest and peatland separating the frame by vertical thirds. The field systems, in the central third of the frame, has circular cropmarks spread across the area. The fields and peatland, to the right, are separated by a wall or enclosure.
Aerial view of Learable township, rig and other remains, Strath of Kildonan. ©HES

More attention also needs to be paid to the historical context of the settlements under study. For instance, illicit distillation in late 18th and early 19th centuries enabled marginal land to be settled. Did such settlement take particular physical forms? The distribution of mills in the 18th century (and preceding period) requires an understanding of the institution of thirlage (feudal servitude), which could vary from estate to estate but which, until it was abolished, tended to limit the number of mills (see Chapter 10.4).

Physical evidence for land divisions, particularly those which might have played a part in the runrig system of land allocation, also need exploring. Head dykes can often be traced; they are usually of stone and turf or wholly of turf (particularly in wetter areas). Drystone dykes are the most prevalent, with many relating to post-enclosure divisions. Little attention has been paid to these features in the past.

The establishment of crofting is generally associated with the clearance period.  However, as noted above, there could be a disjunction between clearance on the one hand and the later establishment of crofts in resettlement areas on the other.  This calls for an archaeology of the formation of crofting, not only in elucidating its chronology but also its mark on settlement patterns. The Napier Commission and Brand (Deer Forest) Commission of 1895 testimonies provide a perspective from the tenants which can be combined at a local level with estate details and landscape investigation.

Leaving to one side the majority of rural settlements, it is worth noting the continuing use of crannogs, though not necessarily full time. Important dating has shown that crannogs continued to be built in the post-medieval period, for example timbers at Eaderloch Crannog, Loch Trieg in Lochaber (MHG4296; Case Study Eaderloch Crannog) were dated by dendrochronology (Mills et al 2017) and radiocarbon techniques to cal AD 1480-1650 (Crone 2010). Other crannogs show signs of re-occupation of what were originally Iron Age sites, for example at Loch Kinellan, Strathpeffer in Easter Ross (MHG6285; Fraser 1917).

Occupation remains dating to the earlier post-medieval period have been discovered in caves in Wester Ross by the Scotland’s First Settlers Project, for example at Crowlin, Ard Clais Salacher, Allt na Criche, and Toscaig (Hardy and Wickham-Jones 2009) and in Easter Ross by the Rosemarkie Caves project(Steven Birch pers comm), but further work on the nature of the occupation needs to be done.

Highland Travellers had seasonal camping sites and are recorded as using caves, with occasional archaeological remains of shelter walls being found for example at Caird’s Cave on the Black Isle; MHG8855; Anderson-Whymark 2011). See Chapter 10.7 for further discussion of the difficulties of finding Highland traveller evidence in the archaeological and documentary record.

Compared with many other areas in Scotland, there is relatively little urban presence in the Highlands; indeed only a handful of communities were included in the Scotlands Urban Past project. In 1700 there were only seven royal burghs (Wick, Dornoch, Tain, Fortrose, Dingwall, Inverness and Nairn), and a small number of burghs of barony where the landowner was entitled to hold markets for domestic goods. Mercat (market) crosses survive in several towns (Small 1900; Gifford 1992, 63, 65), though many have been moved over the years, and some are much weathered.

Vertical photograph of a stone monument in the centre of a high street road. The monument is standing on a pyramid of stones sealed by concrete, creating a square shape on the ground. The monument itself is a heavily degraded stone cross, with a long shaft leading up to the rounded centre of what once was a cross. The stone is yellow-brown in colour, with moss and dark inclusions from exposure.
The Mercat Cross in Dingwall before being moved into the museum. ©HES

A great deal of work has been done in Inverness, but the archaeological remains and finds need to be brought together. The Burgh Surveys for Wick, Dornoch, Tain, Dingwall, Inverness and Nairn provide a wider perspective beyond individual buildings (Gourlay and Turner 1977; Simpson and Stevenson 1982a; Simpson and Stevenson 1982b; Turner et al 1983; Oram et al 2009; Dennison and Coleman 1999). It is important that archaeological research on Highland burghs is placed within the context of developments within urban Scotland as a whole.

Villages planned and built by landowners for the most part relate to the improvements of the 18th and 19th centuries, in many cases designed to attract craftspeople and industry (Gifford 1992, 63); planned settlements in the Highlands have been the subject of a PhD thesis by Micky Gibbard at the University of Dundee. A number survive in the Highlands, many with good survival and documentary evidence. Some have been the focus of research by the NTS (Case Study Archaeological Work by the NTS), for example Balmacara Square, Wester Ross (MHG16855), or community projects such as Jamestown in Easter Ross; http://www.archhighland.org.uk/strathpeffer-area.asp). Others have potential for further work. Other towns and villages have been investigated by community groups with varying amounts of publication. A portal for this research would be useful.

Several well-preserved fishing villages survive in the Highlands (Gifford 1992, 640), including at Nairn and Avoch. Some were planned settlements by the British Fisheries Society, such as Ullapool, Wester Ross and Pultneytown, Caithness (see Chapter 10.5), or by landlords, such as at Port Henderson near Gairloch, Wester Ross (MHG21344). Port Henderson is a good example of a well-researched and surveyed community project combining documentary research and survey (Malone and MacInnes 2013). 

Oblique aerial photograph of a coastal village, with the beach and sea covering half of the image diagonally, to the west and south. To the east and north, a village of light coloured houses and buildings separates the beach from a green landscape. In the foreground a semi-circular harbour, lined with small boats, can be seen, defined by a grey wall curving from the land to the water. The tide looks very low, with sand protruding from most of the visible water.
Aerial view of Avoch village showing the harbour in the foreground. ©HES

A large number of commemorative cairns survive throughout the Highlands, some in isolated locations, others in towns. Although these do not indicate settlement per se, they reflect the concerns of people living in the Highlands. Ordnance Survey trig points/stations and benchmarks are also dotted throughout the landscape, part of national survey undertaken in the early 19th century and later resurveys.


Case Study: Archaeological Work by the NTS


Case Study: Loch Hourn Survey


Case Study: Glen Feshie Survey


Case Study: Easter Raitts Township


Case Study: Eaderloch Crannog



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